Should the architect of a devastating humanitarian crisis in a poor country be given a welcome at two of America’s most prestigious universities? Most certainly not.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who orchestrated the now three-year-old military assault on Yemen, will be in Washington this week for meetings with President Trump and other U.S. officials, and word is that he will come to Massachusetts and visit Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. The stated objective of the visit is to discuss “ways to continue advancing shared priorities, including enhancing security and prosperity in the Middle East.” Saudi Arabia and MIT have previously cooperated on cybersecurity, technology, and economic development; the Saudi oil firm Aramco is a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative, and MIT helped establish the Center for Complex Engineering Systems, part of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, or KACST. These relationships should end.
Consider the following. Saudi Arabia is oil rich country with a pre-modern political system characterized by an absolutist monarchy and high offices held by princes who have been enriched by the country’s oil wealth. Its strongest institutions are the monarchy, military, and religious authorities, whose interpretation of Islam includes second-class citizenship for women, no rights for non-Muslims, and medieval forms of punishment. While Arab countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia can boast robust civil societies and multiple political parties, the Saudi regime bans all such institutions. Over the past three decades, Saudis have used their wealth to fund the global spread of Wahhabism through the building of mosques, madrassas, and charities across the world. No churches, however, are allowed on Saudi soil, despite the presence of a diplomatic community and of numerous migrant workers. Saudi Arabia is intolerant of religious minorities or any form of dissidence, and the discriminatory treatment of the minority Shia population has exacerbated tensions with Iran. Over the past 15 years, Saudi Arabia has spent between 10% and 15% of GDP on military purchases – mostly from the United States and the United Kingdom. Many of these military weapons have been deployed against Yemen.
Since 2015, and in an ostensible effort to stop the Houthi opposition forces from assuming power and instead to install a weak and unpopular former president, Prince Mohammed initiated the Saudi decision to intervene in the Yemen civil conflict. The Saudis have mercilessly bombarded the country, falsely claiming that the Houthi rebels are in alliance with Iran. The real reason is to install a puppet government and ensure control over a crucial oil shipping lane. Aerial attacks have destroyed Yemen’s cultural heritage as well as dozens of hospitals, marketplaces, farms, and bridges, while numerous Yemenis, including children, have been killed or maimed. The Saudi blockade of Yemen’s main container port has generated famine, a water shortage, and a cholera epidemic. Unable to leave their country, some two million Yemenis are internally displaced and live in squalid conditions, but even refugee camps have been safe from air strikes.
Equally dismaying are the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia on “security” in the Middle East, on oil purchases, and the U.S. sale of weapons to the Saudi regime. It is telling that the US has spent billions on “democracy promotion” in Cuba and Iran, but not in Saudi Arabia. We call on the Trump Administration and the Congress to wake up to the reality of gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Saudi regime at home and abroad. In that connection, Senators Warren and Markey’s support for Senator Bernie Sanders’ S.J.Res. 54, which calls for a halt to U.S. military cooperation with the Saudis’ Yemen bombardment, and which is expected to get a vote in the Senate this week, are a step in the right direction. In particular, it is highly inappropriate for a U.S. university such as MIT or Harvard to be an enabler of Saudi Arabia’s offensive military operations. MIT and Harvard should cancel any invitation they have extended to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and for MIT to cease its cooperation in the Saudi defense and tech sectors until Saudi Arabia has withdrawn from Yemen, helped to reconstruct the country, and reformed its own institutions and policies.
Valentine Moghadam is professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University and director of its Middle East Studies Program. She is a member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and a board member of Massachusetts Peace Action.
March 23, 2018